When most people think of psychology, they think of "the mind." Without getting extremely philosophical, we can say "the mind" is at the heart of psychology. Oftentimes however, the mind seems to have a mind of its own. That is, it seems as if our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors and so on are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The practice of mindfulness is designed to bring our thoughts, feelings and behaviors under control through the focus of the mind.
The practice of mindfulness can be thought of as cultivating awareness. It can also be thought of as paying attention.
When people come to therapy, they usually bring complaints which are of two types. We may think they bring one or the other, but they usually bring both. One type is about obsession and compulsion. They pay too much attention to things which bother them or engage in behaviors which are not going to help them with their complaints. The other type is about denial and avoidance. They pay too little attention to the things which could help them and engage to little in the things which could truly enrich their lives.
When we are very focused on one thing (or a set of things), we are usually less focused on other things. If we STOP and ask ourselves "Where do I want to put my focus right now," we will usually come up with a clear answer. Even if the "answer" is, "I don't know," or "I am really torn on that," our answer is clearer than if we did not practice this basic mindfulness technique.
The purpose of mindfulness: When a person has learned to employ the first of these mindfulness techniques, they will find that mindfulness is a good way to get themselves out of some sort of trouble or to solve some sort of a problem. They train themselves to habitually look for "red flags" and instead of being triggered into some unexamined or habitual, or old response, they are cued to use their mindfulness skills towards happier, more fulfilling ways of looking at and doing things.
Mindlessness: Our minds, it is said, are wonderful servants, but terrible masters. When we grab control over our own minds, making it work for us, we are free to let it go. When we have, through mindful awareness, corrected our problematic thoughts, we are free to relax, and as we become more practiced, our ability to relax and be at peace becomes easier. Less and less do we suffer the terrible and overwhelming churning of the mind and less and less do we experience the oops and regrets which result form the type of mindlessness which has not first been brought under attentive control. Mindfulness and mindlessness go together. If we develop our mindfulness skills, the problems arising from mindlessness will alert us to STOP and practice mindfulness. When we have STOPPED and employed our mindfulness skills, we are free to be "mindless."
Mindfulness is not just for solving problems. It is a way by which life can be enjoyed more fully. Cultivating skills of attention, we can periodically stop and ask ourselves "What am I doing now?" Instead of a dull awareness of talking with a friend for instance, we may find that we are with someone we are truly enjoying. We may notice how good the breeze feels, how cold a glass of ice water is, the way our fingers move when we want them to and how good it feels to have air move in and out of our lungs. When a thought comes to us like, "Wow, this enjoyable time with my friend will end in about an hour and this is going to leave me feeling sad and alone," we stop and ask, "What am I doing now," and we turn our thoughts back our friend and we do not squander the time we have worrying about something else. We become mindful of what we are doing and this mindfulness is made up in part of a mindlessness of anything which would disturb our full awareness of what we're doing now.
There is much more to the practice of mindfulness than I can possibly address on this page. At the same time, mindfulness is exceedingly easy. One might be advised to stop thinking about it and just do it, and if you "don't do it right," just do it again. The instructions are very basic.
Many therapists have asserted that most problems are rooted in fear. Mindfulness skills not only help people to concentrate, but the ability to concentrate helps people to see their fears and anxieties in a clearer light. Most problems can be solved more effectively when one is clear. Most problems are solved more effectively when one is calm as well. Calmness and clarity go hand in hand. Most people who have developed their abilities to concentrate have found that a positive and self sustaining cycle develops between concentration and relaxation and this is reflected in the literature about meditation both ancient and modern.
A commonly asked question is how long must one practice mindfulness? This is like asking how long must one keep breathing or eating. Mindfulness is something one does over and over and over until it is, in fact, as natural as one's next breath. Keep breathing. Keep enjoying the simple pleasure of breath. Keep enjoying the simple pleasure of mindfulness. Keep enjoying a calm and clear life which feels clear, in control, and deeply relaxing.
In therapy, I find the development and use of mindfulness skills to be foundational and key to resolving most of the complaints people have about their thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. I teach it and practice it, and I support my clients as they learn these amazing and life changing skills.
Many people have a regular meditation practice and their practices come in many forms. Most common is a sitting meditation (which Zen practitioners call Zazen). Not only can a regular meditation practice help develop mindfulness skills, but practicing at times other than times when problems arise, helps a person to associate mindfulness skills with things which are not problematic and this helps when one practices mindfulness moment by moment in the course of daily activity.
Reflection and contemplation
With my clients, I frequently teach a technique designed to enhance the use of mindfulness skills in-the-moment. This skill is called "Filling the Well." In times of reflection and contemplation, we become very familiar with our own wisdom and the way in which we'd truly, in our clearest moments, like to direct our lives. When we are acting mindfully in-the-moment, we have our wisest mind and truest wishes more closely at hand. We become able to STOP and ask, "What was it I told myself I wanted to do in this kind of situation?" and we can "Draw from the Well" without being drawn into an overwhelming mental churning just to figure things out.
When trying something new, people often resist learning that which could help them. With my clients, I often use the example of a new piano player. If the student plays for the first time and decides he sounds awful, he can do one of two things. He could quit or he could accept that although he does not play well presently, if he sticks with it, he will eventually play well. Being willing to be a beginner leads to all successful change and accomplishment.
Mindfulness and mindlessness: The dancer
When one sets out to be a dancer, they must pay very close attention and put their feet in just the right place and think about every bend and movement of the body. In time, the dancer no longer thinks about each step, but does it skillfully and mindlessly. It becomes their second nature and with grace they move across the floor.